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Category: Teaching

The Centralization of Higher Ed

Last month, I noted some important innovations in teaching, while striking a cautionary note about massive, open online courses (MOOCs). But for those who prefer MOOC-thusiasm, Tom Friedman’s recent column delivers:

You may think this MOOCs revolution is hyped, but my driver in Boston disagrees. You see, I was picked up at Logan Airport by my old friend Michael Sandel, who teaches the famous Socratic, 1,000-student “Justice” course at Harvard, which is launching March 12 as the first humanities offering on the M.I.T.-Harvard edX online learning platform. When he met me at the airport I saw he was wearing some very colorful sneakers.

“Where did you get those?” I asked. Well, Sandel explained, he had recently been in South Korea, where his Justice course has been translated into Korean and shown on national television. It has made him such a popular figure there that the Koreans asked him to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at a professional baseball game — and gave him the colored shoes to boot!

Friedman spends much of the remaining column arguing that universities need to a) get rid of “sage on a stage” lecture courses, while substituting in for them b) sages on YouTube like Sandel. The critical link to Education 2.0: intensive, individualized assessment & problem solving. So in Friedman’s ideal world, philosophers like Sandel would teach all the intro “Ethics” or “Justice” courses for millions, while local adjuncts would apply them to particular dilemmas (such as: should columnists disclose if they are “heirs to a multi-billion-dollar business empire”?).

The irony here is twofold. Read More

Social Science & Teaching

Gary King and Maya Sen have argued that traditional universities “can build on our tremendous advantage in research to improve teaching and learning.” In a recent article entitled “How Social Science Research Can Improve Teaching,” they give more details:

We marshal discoveries about human behavior and learning from social science research and show how they can be used to improve teaching and learning. The discoveries are easily stated as three social science generalizations: (1) social connections motivate, (2) teaching teaches the teacher, and (3) instant feedback improves learning. We show how to apply these generalizations via innovations in modern information technology inside, outside, and across university classrooms. We also give concrete examples of these ideas from innovations we have experimented with in our own teaching.

I don’t think all the ideas they propose in the piece could work in a law school context, but several seem well worth trying. I have found, for instance, that teaching a course in Health Data Analysis & Advocacy with a professor from my university’s math department has been a good “stretch” exercise for all involved. In other courses, I’ve tried to introduce students to various online communities that encourage learning about health law. (I’ve found that Twitter may well be the best place to keep track of what’s going on in the law and policy of health information technology.) The King/Sen paper offers many more ideas for promoting new kinds of learning, particularly for those willing to buck the MOOC trend with FASOCs (focused and small online courses).

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Classroom Minutes and Syllabus Design

I am dividing my Corporations casebook to fit the fourth different classroom schedule I’ve had this decade.  It is a taxing but valuable exercise, from a pedagogical standpoint.

At Boston College from 2002 to 2005, my 3-credit class met twice weekly for 90 minutes and I tailored my syllabus accordingly.  From 2007 to 2010, at George Washington, my 4-credit class met thrice weekly for 75 minutes, and I re-sliced, and slightly expanded, my course.

Visiting at Fordham this term, my 4-credit class is meeting twice weekly for 100 minutes; the syllabus I’m designing this week is for my visit at Cardozo in the Spring, where my 4-credit class will meet once per week for 110 minutes and twice per week for 50 minutes.  And at Cardozo, the Corporations course includes a mandatory separate sequence on Accounting, so the syllabus design is a bit more complex yet, as I incorporate material from another book.

In each exercise, the task entails assigning a set of materials, each defined as a teaching unit.  The pros and cons of the various combinations emerge, revealing how a given topic can be either expanded or contracted or linked in new ways with other units.   The exercise adds perspective on the materials for the teacher which should enrich the student experience.

Particularly interesting is how, at least as the book is designed, some topics are best suited for 50 or 75 minute units while others are better suited for the longer 90 to 110 minute slots.  That  knowledge will help me as I revise the book for its 8th edition next summer, trying to provide materials that can be readily sliced into separate series of 50 versus 75 versus 100 minute blocks.

As you can guess from the fact that I just diverted 20 minutes to writing this post, syllabus redesign to accommodate teaching minutes is not the most stimulating of activities. It is less interesting and less valuable than switching books, and is hardly as taxing.  Still, the exercise shows the value of variety.  Time to get back to it.

Picking Up Technical Knowledge

As I teach in some technical fields, I often get questions from students about “how much tech do I need to know to succeed in this field?” For example, the Health Law Survey includes many complex medical situations; my seminar Health Information, Privacy, and Innovation covers standards for certifying “meaningful use” of health information technology; and even the intro to IP course tends to include some forbidding patent cases in it. I think this advice from Michal Tsur and Leah Belsky is reassuring:

[S]uccessful tech companies require a variety of skillsets – from design and community management to operations and business development- both at the entry level and in leadership positions. Significant technical skills can also be learned both on the job and outside of traditional academic education. Take Marissa Mayer vs. Sheryl Sandberg. While Mayer, the current CEO of Yahoo may have graduated Stanford with a CS degree, Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, rose through the business ranks at Google, gaining enough product knowledge on the job to become one of the leading operators and innovators in the space.

Having just reviewed the offerings at Coursera this fall, I can definitely vouch for the idea that many tech skills are “on offer” outside the classroom. I’ve also heard from former students who picked up some tech management skills; for example, one learned software programming skills in order to deal with the massive paperwork in a litigation involving many small disputes. I’m also hoping to teach law students how to work with computer scientists and quantitative analysts in a spring course on data analysis and advocacy for attorneys (which I’ll be co-teaching with a professor from my university’s Department of Mathematics and Computer Science). I know that Michigan State & Daniel Katz have really blazed a trail here; I’m hoping to apply some computational legal studies ideas in courses on health and IP law. If anyone has any suggestions on doing so, I’d love to hear them.

X-Posted: Madisonian.

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The Increased Cost of Distance Education

For uninteresting reasons, I just read Indiana University’s Strategic Plan for Online Education.  Here’s a fact I didn’t know, and haven’t seen well-advertised in the blog discussion on the cost transformative effects of distance learning:

IU (and the remainder of higher education) needs to educate policy makers and the public that online education generally is more, not less, expensive than on‐campus education at both undergraduate and graduate levels. The biggest reason for this is that a universal experience is that equivalent quality online education requires greater individual student attention than on‐campus education at all levels. Units deal with this either by decreasing class sizes, increasing the credit given to faculty teaching online in calculating their teaching load, or providing additional instructional assistants; all of these increase cost per student.

Additional factors that increase the cost of online instruction are the technological infrastructure needed to support it, the need to support student access 24/7, and the greater costs to develop and maintain course materials. The main factor that generally is cited for a decreased cost of online instruction relative to on‐campus is that it doesn’t require classroom space. This is valid; a careful computation by Associate Vice President Steve Keucher calculates this savings at $8.68 per credit hour, or roughly $26 per three credit course. While significant, this savings is not enough to offset the additional costs of online education, such as class sizes that often are 20‐35% smaller.

As pointed out by IU Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Neil Theobald, an important factor in pricing online education is pricing by peers in this market. As shown by the pricing summary for other universities in Appendix B, this pricing offers some guidance but is highly variable.

This seems to pose a challenge to those who would say that distance learning will drive costs out of higher education, no?

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Does Topic Sequence in Teaching Matter?

What are we really teaching our students?  Those of us who complain that our students are too focused on learning rules and doctrines should read a provocative empirical study recently published on SSRN by my colleague Don Gifford, Villanova sociologist Brian Jones, and two of Don’s former students with expertise in statistical analysis, Joseph Kroart and Cheryl Cortemeglia. Donald G. Gifford, Joseph Kroart, Brian Jones & Cheryl Cortemeglia, What’s on First?: Organizing the Casebook and Molding the Mind, 44 Ariz. St. L.J. ___ (2013) (forthcoming).  The article describes an empirical study suggesting that whether the Torts professor begins with intentional, negligent, or strict liability torts affects the students’ understanding of the role of the common-law judge in a statistically significant way. The authors argue that the judge’s role in deciding intentional tort cases is at least to some extent more rule-based than her role in negligence and strict liability cases. Applying the work of sociologist Eving Goffman, they posit that beginning with intentional torts frames the judicial role in this manner. Further, they hypothesize that once frequently anxious first-semester students latch onto one particular conception of the judicial role during the initial weeks of the semester, it becomes anchored and resistant to change even after the students have studied other categories of tort liability.

Gifford et al. surveyed more than 450 first-year law students at eight law schools that vary widely in terms of their
reputational ranking. The students were surveyed at the beginning, middle, and end of the first semester. The survey results supported the authors’ hypothesis that students who begin their study of Torts with strict liability experience a greater shift toward understanding the judge’s role as being influenced by social, economic, and ideological factors and a sense of fairness and less as a process of rule application than do students who begin their study with either intentional torts or negligence.  Even when the authors controlled for the ranking of the law school, topic sequence still generated a significant effect on students’ perceptions of the role of the common law judge.  Nor did the effect of topic sequence vary by gender. The authors were surprised to find that students who began with intentional torts experience a greater attitudinal shift toward perceiving the judicial role as being policy influenced than do students who began with negligent torts.

Despite their disclaimers, the authors implicitly criticize the overwhelming majority of Torts professors who begin with intentional torts. Most Torts casebooks begin with intentional torts, at least after a brief introductory chapter.  Their editors claim that these cases are “accessible,” “memorable,” and provide “a nice warm up” for studying other torts. Some of these same editors admit that intentional torts comprise a “backwater” in modern tort practice. Gifford et al. suggest that the real reason for beginning with intentional torts may be because that is the way it always has been done. They note that the first Torts casebook, edited by James Ames Barr, Dean Langdell’s colleague, began with intentional torts. They provocatively suggest that Ames may have begun with intentional torts in part precisely because these torts were most rule-like in nature and furthered Langdell’s mission to make the law appear “scientific” in order to justify its inclusion within the university curriculum. If this is true, note the authors, then most modern-day Torts professors are “unwitting conscripts” in the Langdellian mission. Read More

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Overlong Resumes, Redux: What Would Alex Kozinski Do?

By way of seconding Gerard’s comments regarding resume (and CV) creep and its baneful effects, let me share with you the rather short resume of an incredibly well-accomplished person: Alex Kozinski, circa 1984, as he was applying for a position on the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Note that Judge Kozinski’s resume back then (as taken from the files of the Reagan Library) was all of two pages long, and that he didn’t go on and on explaining precisely what he did as a clerk for Chief Justice Burger, Judge Kennedy, or even as a judge on the Court of Claims. He didn’t even mention that he was once a contestant on “The Dating Game.”

Given that it’s interviewing season, this also might provide a good opportunity for me to offer a couple of resume tips to law students. I enjoy reviewing students’ resumes, and see a number of recurring errors along with what I consider to be poor judgment calls. I’ll offer a few suggestions, for what they’re worth, after the jump.

Read More

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Welcome Contracts Students!

As new 1Ls begin to immerse themselves in the wonderful world of law, we welcomed them here on this blog recently with an overview of the first-year curriculum that has been in place for ages. It concluded with a particular reference to the course on Contracts, about which I’ve recently published a new book connecting its classic cases and doctrines to contemporary contract disputes in popular culture and covered in the media.

From that book, Contracts in the Real World: Stories of Popular Contracts and Why They Matter, the following continues to provide a gateway into that field by introducing two legends whose venerable work on the subject continues to define the boundaries of recognized debate on most of the issues. The legends are Samuel Williston and Arthur Corbin.

In 1920, Williston, a Harvard professor, published a monumental treatise on the entire law of contracts, and updated it until his death in 1963. In 1950, Arthur Corbin, a professor at Yale, promulgated an equally magisterial and comprehensive treatise, based on earlier writings throughout his career.

These works—still kept up-to-date by successor editors—influenced generations of lawyers and judges addressing contract disputes. Williston’s philosophy dovetailed with that of the eminent jurist, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and Corbin’s resonated with that of the esteemed judge, Benjamin N. Cardozo.

Williston epitomized a formalist approach to law and reflected what some call the “classical” school of contract. It looks to whether parties in a transaction were giving and getting something, emphasizing a concept called “consideration” as the signal of an enforceable contract. This school of thought held unenforceable not only promises to make gifts or attend dinner but promises merely inducing another party to take some action.

In this view, the remedy for breach of a bargain is to pay the injured party money to put them in the same economic position they would have enjoyed had the other performed. This classical conception of contract law dominated well into the twentieth century, and remains a force today.

Corbin took a realist approach to law and offered a more pragmatic conception of contract. Though agreeing with Williston on many points, Corbin recognized, as courts increasingly did in the twentieth century, a wider range of circumstances that create contractual obligations. Williston’s bargain model of consideration remained, but loosened so that even some promises to make gifts could be enforced, so long as there was an identifiable return, like naming a college endowment. It recognized reliance on a promise as a basis of contractual liability, in a novel doctrine commonly called “promissory estoppel.”

Compensation for disappointed expectations remains the primary measure of remedy. But recognizing promissory estoppel gave equal dignity to measuring remedies by out-of-pocket costs incurred relying on a promise.

These twentieth century developments that Corbin captured, and helped to shape, reflected broader social developments as well, moving law’s orientation from a formalist to a realist conception. For example, classical contract’s relative strictness, limiting the scope of contractual obligation, was accompanied by an equivalent strictness of enforcement: if a contract was hard to get into, it was also hard to get out of. People could be bound to contracts that were made based on mutually mistaken assumptions or even where performance became impossible.

But as the ambit of contractual obligation expanded, so did grounds for excusing it, like mutual mistake about the terms of a trade, or impossibility of performance, such as a power outage in a rented banquet hall. Similarly, classical contract law venerated written records, limiting the scope of obligation to what was plainly meant within a document’s four corners. Corbin and his realist descendants were more willing to consider evidence supplementing these written expressions. Read More

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Welcoming All 1Ls Across America!

Welcome all first-year law students to the wonderful world of law!  I teach Contracts at George Washington University (though I’m visiting at Fordham University this fall).  My students find it useful to begin our journey into that subject–which many find can be difficult–with a step back to look at the shape of the first-year law school curriculum.

It has not changed much in a century and does not vary widely among law schools today, from Cooley to Columbia.  I also try to be sure to connect the topics and examples appearing in today’s casesbooks (which have also not changed much over time and do not vary from school to school) to current topics in the news.  Students at other schools can share in these stories by obtaining a copy of my book, a fun supplement to the Contracts course,  Contracts in the Real World: Stories of Popular Contracts and Why They Matter.

Some thoughts about the shape of today’s 1L curriculum appear in the beginning of the book, including the following excerpt.  I summarize this for my students on our first day of class to give a sense of why today’s curriculum looks as it does and where contract law fits within it.

The curriculum dates to a legendary figure of nearly a century and a half ago.  In the 1870s, C. C. Langdell, as Dean of Harvard Law School, designed a simple way to organize the vast field of law still used to this day. He thought that underlying law’s complexity were a handful of basic ideas. Examining leading cases organized around these ideas would reveal law’s elements and rhythms.

Common law actions, meaning those courts resolve one by one, were of greatest interest to Langdell and dominate many 1L courses, including Contracts.  In the United States, following English traditions, common law is developed by state courts as disputes arise. Originally referring to law “common” to all citizens, today this system yields some variation among states, but general principles tend to prevail. Though the common law evolves as society and the economy change, judges draw on precedents when evaluating new cases—under the principle of stare decisis.

Langdell organized the welter of cases on numerous topics according to basic questions: how, what, and why. The question of how isolates the procedures private parties follow when resolving disputes using civil litigation. This is the practice of the lawsuit, arranged into the sub-field of study called civil procedure. Read More

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Bad Humor in the Classroom

It was a terrible thing to say, an awful attempt at humor. A tenured professor at the Merchant Marine Academy, cuing up a documentary film  before leaving a class, alluded to the orange-haired man who, 11 days earlier, had massacred a dozen people in a Colorado movie house and wounded five times more.  (The teacher reportedly said: “If someone with orange hair appears in the corner of the room, run for the exit.”)

The associate dean promptly filed a recommendation of termination, classifying the action as notoriously disgraceful, a ground for firing in the school’s rules.  The head of school followed suit, putting the professor on administrative leave and halting his teaching.

The teacher, who made the statement without any bad intent, immediately apologized to everyone concerned, including especially one student, whose father was a victim of the Colorado gunman.  According to sources I contacted who know the teacher, he is a first-rate, solid person who simply made a crude comment.

Having been an associate dean myself, I have heard many worse jokes spoken during class by professorial comedians  manqué.  Occasionally I did consult with a colleague after students reported such episodes and even felt constrained to confer with my Dean once.  But I never thought to suspend a teacher or suggest a suspension or termination over blundered, insensitive, stupid but innocent or naïve attempts at humor.

In such cases, I came to realize that it has  been difficult for many teachers in recent decades to sustain a sense of good humor in the classroom without offending the sensibilities of at least some.  Classrooms are not comedy clubs, of course, but humor can be a valuable pedagogical supplement.  We must weigh our words in class, true, yet classroom colloquy is more robust when the scales are more forgiving than shackling.

The associate dean and head of school seem to be overreacting. They can admonish and berate the professor in many other ways than suspension or threatened termination.  A similar bit of overreaction is how the New York Times decided to report this story in today’s paper.  At least the writer had the good sense to quote tenure guidelines that cast doubt on the proportionality of the administration response.

I hope I never say anything so  dreadful in my classroom. If I do, however, I hope that my associate dean, dean or president would not rush to punish me or have the New York Times add injury to embarrassment. The self-loathing is enough.